(Update: WP contributor NCrissie B wisely pointed out that cognitive science shows that the standard fact-checking format of stating the myth and then debunking it – which this post initially used – actually reinforces the false claim. Fact-checking is far more effective when we focus on the facts, rather than the myths being disputed. We’ve edited the post below to take that more effective approach).
A few days ago, Mother Jones magazine published a great article debunking 10 of the leading myths that are propagated by gun advocates. Specific myths that are debunked include that we only need to better enforce existing gun laws, that violent video games are to blame for the US’s high gun violence rate, and that owning a gun makes a person safer. If you know anyone who is still uncertain about the need for better gun safety laws, or who is beginning to drink the NRA’s kool-aid, forward the Mother Jones article to them.
In debating gun safety issues with conservatives on the internet (we know, probably not the best use of our time, but sometimes we cannot resist), we’ve come across a few other myths that appear to go to the core of gun advocates’ obsession with stopping common sense gun safety efforts. Here are two of them and why they are untrue.
Fact 1: Countries with stricter gun safety laws have lower crime rates
This is a common myth among gun advocates, with Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada most frequently cited as countries with higher levels of violent crime but stricter laws limiting the ownership or carrying of guns. But as numerous studies have explained, cross-country comparison of violent crime rates is extremely difficult because different countries categorize crimes differently. For example, a 2001 study by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics evaluated the propriety of comparing reported violent crime rates in Canada with those in the US and concluded that:
Despite a tendency to simply compare Canada’s violent crime rate with the FBI’s violent crime index, this type of comparison is inappropriate. First and foremost, Canada’s violent crime rate contains a greater number of violent offences, including homicide, attempted murder, assault (3 levels), sexual assault (3 levels), robbery, other sexual offences, and abductions. The FBI only includes four main offences in the violent crime index – homicide, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The FBI’s exclusion of simple assault, which is the leading contributor to Canada’s violent crime rate, makes this comparison impossible.
Once those differences are taken into account, the data shows that violent crime rates in Canada averaged under 300 per 100,000 people every year from 1983 to 2000, while the rate in the US ranged from 500 to 700. Similarly, much of the violent crime in Australia are “assaults,” which is defined much more broadly there than in the US. If you look only at “serious assaults”, which is what the US data covers, Australia’s violent crime rate is lower. And the same pattern can be seen with regards to the United Kingdom. With each country, gun advocates are relying on “violent crime” statistics that are not directly comparable. Once comparable data is considered, each of the countries with stricter gun safety laws – Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada – have lower violent crime rates.
The lower violent crime rates in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada can best be seen with regards to homicides, the crime for which there is the least disparity between reporting in different countries. The US’s homicide rate averages around 5 per 100,000 people, while in Australia the rate in 2007 was 1.3, in Canada it is around 1.8, and in the United Kingdom it is around 1.2.
Fact 2: Law-abiding citizens rarely use guns in legitimate self-defense
A big part of the gun advocates’ world view appears to be the belief that they are surrounded by criminal threats that they need to be heavily armed to ward off. And so, virtually any time gun safety legislation comes up, they jump to the argument that stricter gun laws will reduce the ability of law-abiding people to defend themselves. In support, they point to a series of surveys, including the most prominent one by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, that estimated there to be anywhere from 760,000 to 3.6 million defensive gun uses (“DGUs”) every year. By contrast, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (“BJS”) found that there were around 62,200 DGUs to protect people, and another 20,000 DGUs to protect property, every year.
In a 1997 report, the U.S. DOJ’s National Institute of Justice (“NIJ”) thoroughly debunked the surveys by Kleck and others that found as many as 3.6 million DGUs per year. As the NIJ report explained, the results of the Kleck surveys would suggest the “absurd” conclusion that more women defended themselves with a gun from rape than the total number of rapes that occurred. Similarly, if the survey results were accurate, it would mean that 36% of robberies, and 19% of aggravated assaults were warded off by a DGU. And, most unrealistically, it would mean that approximately 130,000 criminals were wounded or killed by a DGU. Such high levels of DGUs would not only be readily obvious to the police, statisticians, and the media, but it would also likely drive a lot of criminals out of business. Yet there is no evidence suggesting anywhere near such high levels of DGUs.
The NIJ report also identifies three likely flaws that lead the surveys by Kleck and others to vastly overstate the number of DGUs per year. First, the estimates are based on extrapolations from very small sample sizes, which makes the results inherently unreliable and subject to the impact of false positives. Second, some people are likely to overstate or falsely answer questions regarding DGUs in an effort to impress the interviewer or due to actual confusion. And third, many individuals who tell a survey taker that they engaged in a DGUs might not be innocent victims of crime, but instead may be engaged in criminal activity that led to the need to use a gun in self-defense. A 2000 Harvard study by Hemenway, Azreal, and Miller found that gun owners use their guns to threaten or intimidate far more often than in legitimate self-defense, and their panel of criminal court judges – who were instructed to treat the gun owners’ reports as factually accurate – found most claims were not legal self-defense.
In short, the claims of high levels of DGUs made by gun advocates are shaky at best.
To the extent that the data on gun violence issues is unclear or incomplete, much of the blame lies on the doorstep of the NRA and its ilk who have spent the past 15 years making sure that no federal money could go towards research into gun violence or gun safety issues. But the data that is indisputable is that there are approximately 11,500 killings with guns and 30,000 gun-related deaths per year, and there have been 62 mass gun killings over the past 30 years. Those numbers are unacceptable and are the reason why we must all take action to get Congress to act on gun safety legislation regardless of what sort of pro-gun myths the NRA and other gun advocates are spreading.